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Polls And That Looming Dalit Factor

By Neerja Chowdhury

Indian Express
27 June, 2003

Both the BJP and the BSP have decided against extending their
partnership to states outside Uttar Pradesh in the forthcoming
November elections. In UP their alliance is expected to create a
winning chemistry. But in Madhya Pradesh, where the BSP has been a factor in successive elections, both may stand to gain from going it alone.

Mayawati made it clear two days ago that her party will go it alone in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Chhatisgarh. The BJP brass has also indicated that no alliance is being sought with the BSP. The BSP had fought on its own in the 1998 assembly elections and rescued Digvijay Singh, helping him to bounce back to power for a second term. The BSP had contested only half the seats, and BSP chief Kanshi Ram had urged his supporters to vote strategically in order to defeat the BJP. Digvijay Singh's skillful handling of the BSP leaders had paid him handsome dividends. This, however, is not the case in
2003. Of course, the BSP is expected to cut into the Dalit vote which has traditionally gone to the Congress.

This is true not just in the Rewa-Satna area where the BSP has had a presence but also in the Malwa region.In Malwa, this time the BSP may be the spoiler for the Congress, though it may not win seats. Besides the Dalits, the Most Backward Castes have been fired by a Mayawati in power. The main difference between 1998 and 2003 is that Mayawati is in the saddle in Lucknow and there is a spillover effect of this in the adjoining areas of Madhya Pradesh. Thanks to the ripple effect, the BSP may gain strength this time. It plans to fight in all the constituencies in November.

The BJP brass concedes that the BSP now has a 12 per
cent popular following in the state. This is the finding of the two
surveys the party has got done internally. In 1998, the BSP's vote-
share had dropped to 5 per cent from the 8.3 per cent it had polled in the previous election. It is not surprising that the politically savvy Digvijay Singh had told his close confidantes almost two years ago that while the BJP could be managed, the real challenge to the Congress would come from the BSP. This became even more of a truism after Mayawati took over in Lucknow in May 2002. Aware of the writing on the wall, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister had announced his by-
now-famous Dalit Agenda in Bhopal in January 2002. In the months that followed he tried to consolidate his following amongst the Dalits - who add upto 36 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, with the SCs accounting for 15 per cent of the population and the STs 21 per cent - by taking three initiatives.

The first was to distribute 8 lakh acres of land to the Dalits, the second to buy goods and produce from Dalit entrepreneurs as part of affirmative action to empower them economically, and the third step was to set up special centres of excellence for Dalits in every district of Madhya Pradesh, which are modern centres of learning where Dalit students have access to free food, uniforms, computers, tutors. There are almost 5,000 such centres in Madhya Pradesh. (There are only 400 of them in UP). The
Dalit Agenda ran into trouble for two reasons.

The drive to distribute grazing land was resisted by the other castes, mainly the OBCs. Of the 48 cases of serious clashes that reportedly took place, the OBCs were involved in 46 of them and the Rajputs in only two. The Indore bench of the Bhopal High Court stayed it and the opponents of the move used this as an opportunity to take back their land illegally. The Agenda became a double-edged sword. The second factor which could really create trouble for Digivijay Singh is ironically the recently announced alliance between the Congress and Mulayam
Singh Yadav in UP. From the feedback that is trickling in from parts of Madhya Pradesh, particularly the areas bordering UP, is that the move has not gone down well with the Dalits.

The educated Dalits in particular are furious with the Congress and say that the party which had once betrayed Ambedkar has shown its true colours again. It cannot stomach the rise of an independent Dalit leader in power in UP and has now forged an alliance to dethrone Mayawati. This will compound Digvijay Singh's problems. As it is the BSP leaders have been campaigning against him, charging him of trying to bribe the
Dalits with his Agenda. Moreover, the Congress has done nothing to project in UP all that its CM has done for the Dalits in Madhya
Pradesh, which could have mitigated this sentiment. Some even suspect that it is Digivijay Singh's opponents in the Congress who have pushed for an alliance with Mulayam Singh knowing that this would antagonise the Dalits and create problems for him in the elections.

The BJP on the other hand feels it has ladoos in both hands. The BJP leadership calculates that the party may stand to gain from the increased influence of the BSP in the border areas because it would weaken the Congress but also because the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, Uma Bharati, is an OBC. The BSP has impacted the thinking of the Most Backward Castes, like malis, mallahs, dhobis, nais, in this area, and this goodwill for it may actually translate into votes for Uma Bharat. These communities now hanker for political power and leadership. One of the reasons why the socialist and communist movements in this belt for social justice had petered out was that the leadership remained in the hands of the upper castes.

In any case, the BJP reckons, even if the BSP gets more than a dozen seats in the next assembly, it is more likely to align with the BJP than with the Congress in the event of the elections throwing up a hung assembly. The idea of the meeting of the BJP's officebearers on Wednesday in Gwalior presided over by party chief M Venkaiah Naidu and attended by Deputy PM L K Advani was to finetune the BJP's strategy. The ``internal surveys'' done by the BJP give the party a convincing lead in the forthcoming elections, but the party leadership is taking no chances. On the plus side, the BJP is banking on incumbency to take its toll, and is plugging away at the development issues. The current tussle between the Sangh-VHP and the BJP over Ayodhya may not adversely affect the BJP in Madhya Pradesh because Uma Bharati has been closely aligned with the Ayodhya movement and enjoys the confidence of the Sangh leaders.

On the flip side, the BJP has to contend with a bureaucracy that continues to be loyal to Digivijay Singh, the CM's skillful management techniques, and a party that is divided despite the papering over that has been done. The power situation has improved in Madhya Pradesh of late and the farmers' plight might improve if the monsoons come on time, and this too is worrying the BJP.